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B.C. NDP leader John Horgan ready for test of general election

NDP Leader John Horgan doesn't dismiss the notion that leading his party comes with a unique set of challenges.

"Look, the NDP has been a bag of cats since 1933," Mr. Horgan told me this week in a year-end interview in his office. And getting New Democrats to agree on policies and issues can often be as challenging as herding cats.

Next May will be the three-year anniversary of Mr. Horgan's ascension to the helm of the provincial NDP. It also will be the month when he will face his greatest test as leader, in a general election, against a formidable campaigner, Premier Christy Clark.

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While he has been a long-time fixture in B.C. politics, both in the backrooms and in an elected role for almost 11 years, he is not an exceptionally well-known commodity across the province. The election campaign will give him exposure and a profile he's never had before. It will be an important test of his nerves and patience – something for which managing the NDP has well prepared him.

NDP caucuses in British Columbia have always been an amalgam of distinct, often fierce personalities who arrive in Victoria with sometimes naive and idealistic agendas – and a determination to fight for their cause at whatever cost. They can also be a vicious bunch, as leaders Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosangh discovered in the 1990s and early 2000s and Carole James would learn a decade later.

Mr. Horgan has so far avoided any ugly headlines stemming from internal dissent – although that doesn't mean there hasn't been any. In the name of unity, he's had to swallow hard on issues on which he's found himself at odds with powerful elements in his caucus. While it would be unrealistic to expect Mr. Horgan to identify policies he's backed mostly in the name of caucus and party peace, it's not difficult imagining what some of them are.

He is certainly more pro-resource than his party's positions would suggest; consequently, he's had to take one (or two or three) for the team. Mr. Horgan's opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline is likely one of those issues in which he did just that.

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"For me, looking at the end game, it's how can we keep this group of idealists together long enough so they can start to make their own compromises internally," Mr. Horgan told me. "And there has been a great deal of that that doesn't necessarily make the headlines."

Still, being forced to defend positions you might not completely support can be difficult. I suggested to Mr. Horgan that the waffling he's been accused of around Kinder Morgan (among other things he suggested, at one point, that he could be "persuaded" on its merits) is evidence of the danger inherent in trying to defend a position of which you're not 100 per cent convinced.

Also, he knows, instinctively, it's a position that will not be popular with some of the party's traditional supporters. His mixed messages on the pipeline hint at someone who is trying to give himself some wiggle room, or at least lend the impression he's not completely closed-minded about it. That way, he can possibly hold on to some blue-collar workers who view the party's position on Kinder Morgan as anti-jobs.

Mr. Horgan, however, says any controversy he's created over some of his utterances on Kinder Morgan is the consequence of some naiveté on his part. Few public policy issues, as with pipelines, are black and white; they are filled with shades of grey. But when you are the leader of a political party, you have to speak in black-and-white terms so people know clearly where you stand.

In our interview, Mr. Horgan was very candid about himself. He confessed he is still learning things about politics, and about leading a modern political party. He's also learning about what you can and can't say publicly – and what can happen when you step outside your carefully crafted message box. He's innately emotional. He's Irish, with an Irish temper to boot. Often, he's been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of person.

As leader, you have to be more constrained, more thoughtful. You need to consider the consequences of your actions before you indulge in them.

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"My wife says to me: 'Go out there and be yourself and people will love you,'" Mr. Horgan said. "And then I go out there and be who I am and then Sheena [McConnell, his press secretary] will call me about something I've said and say, 'Um, we have a problem.'"

Mr. Horgan laughs.

"When I get into trouble for saying something, I slump, because I know it's my fault," he said. "It's not my nature to stay inside some message box. But sometimes it's the safest place to be."

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